Reviewed by Anna Dowdall
Choosing Eleonore, by Montreal philosophy professor and novelist Andrée A. Gratton, is a little gem of a novella. I opened it between two Saturday afternoon tasks and next thing you know I had read it to the end.
On page one, we meet a lonely and reclusive hospital worker who, one day while waiting for the bus on Avenue des Pins, sees Eleonore for the first time across the street and falls in love with her. Marianne follows her home, finds a pretext to enter the grubby building in the east end where Eleonore lives, and accosts her with a trumped-up story of a lost scarf. Thus begins Marianne’s one-way relationship with Eleonore, a pilgrimage of love based on Marianne’s conviction that Eleonore loves her back, and a comic odyssey of obsession.
Andrée Gratton packs a lot into the short narrative, which is told from the point of view of Marianne. Although we know little of her before she claps eyes on the enigmatic Eleonore in her yellow skirt, Marianne may be the greater enigma of the two. We don’t know her past. Is this sudden onset of delusion a departure from mere eccentricity, or did she quietly snap a suspender well before the story opens? Regardless, we are strangely on Marianne’s side from the beginning. We can see the delusion, and yet we want her to succeed. Everyone loves a lover, perhaps. Besides which, the whole thing has a feeling of déjà vu, for who hasn’t wandered through the obscure byways of senseless unrequited love?
We also find a certain amount to admire in Marianne. She is bold in her subterfuges and approaches. The readers may secretly wish they had been so bold. Not lacking enterprise, she moves into the apartment Eleonore appears to share with some dodgy friends (we quickly learn that Eleonore isn’t the perfect love object Marianne imagines) and cleans and feeds a group of hapless people who don’t deserve her care. Meanwhile, as the progress of love inevitably takes its toll, things go downhill at the hospital. There, Marianne, although she doesn’t seem to be a nurse and was once actually the receptionist, performs increasingly questionable triage on and even treats—more enterprise?—emergency patients. This is one of the story’s many comic moments.
The end comes soon, but not before the hospital hires Eleonore as a receptionist, in an inexplicable HR move that is par for the course since Marianne still works there despite her unravelling work performance. If you like realistic narratives, this may not be the book for you. Marianne’s hallucinatory love is never really explained. You might be tempted to square it away as psychosis, but the sleep of reason is pretty general in this narrative. Marianne’s delusion is to some extent matched by the meaningless lives of Eleonore and her friends, and of course, there’s HR, whose decisions seem to be based on fantasy.
Realistic or not, Choosing Eleonore still grips and satisfies, and in a way we are Marianne as we read. Her delusion, in fact, makes her uneasily relatable, an everywoman. This is at least partly to do with Gratton’s spare, tender and utterly convincing style, and Ian Thomas Shaw’s lucid translation. As for the rest, some human mysteries can only be experienced, not explained.
Choosing Eleonore in its English translation is published by Guernica Editions. It will be launched on April 1, 2021. The original French version is published by Éditions de la Pleine Lune.